Visual research May 2019

I constantly collect images that interest me, then several times a year I go through them, sort them into rough groups, stick them in my workbook and write notes on why I chose them underneath. From there I’m able to pull out possible areas of interest, recurring themes or ideas I hadn’t recognised before. I try not to self-censor and I keep anything that catches my eye even if I worry that it’s a bit far from ‘art’ or my practice as such. Fashion, pop culture etc can all have useful take-outs.

Dissecting symbolism and intention in my latest works

Often when I’m exploring new work I come up against questions that I struggle to answer. In the current series of photos and videos I have been creating I started wondering about some of the symbolism I was drawn to and also the intention behind the desire I have to use women as the protagonists in this particular set. I’m very lucky to have a wealth of thoughtful advice to draw upon in the form of my art peers who don’t mind sitting down with me and having a ponder. In this case I called upon the brains of my friends Justine and Anita to think through with me some of these questions.

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Mary MacGregor-Reid, 2018, Still from video “In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”

I have found myself fascinated with the act of pouring. In previous videos I have used the pouring of beeswax, of honey, of carbon and I still have a desire to work with this action. I discussed the symbolism of pouring with Jus and Anita who had some similar thoughts to my own and also expanded upon them with some ideas I hadn’t come to on my own – highlighting the importance of having other thinkers to talk with!

Jus related the act of pouring to having tea with friends, of pouring out a cup for a guest as an act of friendship, of bonding and of interpersonal ritual. She also related it to the act of her mother washing her hair in the bath as a child. I relate to both of these actions as I am an avid tea-drinker and my mum also used to rinse my hair in the bath by pouring water over my head in a sort of bath-time baptism. There is a connotation of caring to these acts and we both mentioned the release of scent and the experience of the sound of water rushing into water. They also seem to be quite feminine acts, things that are often done between women and in the act of caring for others.

The act of pouring can be a sort of gift, as the substance leaves one vessel to then be contained in another, as in the pouring of tea.

It can also signify blending as 2 or more elements are brought together to create a new substance, as when cooking or in chemistry.

There is the cleansing or consecration aspect, as in baptism or ritual anointing.

There is also an idea of a substance transforming, which I think is particularly experienced in the release of scent through the movement of the substance from one place to the next. When pouring non-liquid substances like ash or carbon there is an explosion of dust that comes with the action.

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Mary MacGregor-Reid, 2018, Still from video “In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”

I talked to Anita extensively about my use of women as the protagonists in these new works and why I felt that it was important to the work, but could be a problem. This work is not specifically about gender, it isn’t a political statement, but at the same time I felt that my use of female characters could be interpreted in that way, bringing in content that I didn’t really want to be there. This took us around to the symbolism of pouring again and whether in classical art this is seen as a female gesture. Outside neoclassical concrete garden sculptures, we weren’t really sure if this was true, but we were reminded of the fact that the cup is very definitely a symbol of the female.

Both water and the cup or chalice are recognisable as symbols of the feminine. This gives me a bit more insight into where the pouring symbolism along with female protagonists is coming together in this work. Now that I’ve unpicked my unconscious decision-making a bit it has made me very interested to go back and reshoot all the scenes with male protagonists once I’ve finished shooting with women to see how that would affect the work and the viewer’s experience of it. I’ve also started thinking about the sound and scent aspects of the action of pouring and how this could work within the context of these or future pieces. I’ve worked with both sound and scent previously so it seems quite natural to think about how these experiential elements could integrate.

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Mary MacGregor-Reid, 2018, Still from video “In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”

The Ritual of the Mass & the difficulties of portraying esoteric ritual practice in contemporary art

Image: The main iconostasis in St Kazan Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia.

I’ve been discussing the idea of filmed ritual with Josephine who has collaborated with me in my video work. We were wondering about how have to have a more active ritual aspect to the work and how this would translate. The main issues I see around filmed ritual are as follows:

  • Much ritual; western ceremonial magick in particular; just looks daft when viewed from ‘the outside’. It’s a participatory practice and rarely works as a spectator sport. Ritual is experiential in nature and there are few forms that can be viewed and appreciated without most of the active ingredients being completely lost.
  • It can look truly hokey. The trappings of ritual (again, especially western ceremonial) are so loaded with pre-existing cultural and pop-cultural meaning that use of them is very difficult unless it’s in a deliberately self-aware way, which lends itself more to the glib and ironic. Candles, incense, swords, robes? Pile all those together and you’ve got yourself a bad amateur horror movie.
  • Blatantly utilising the ritual language of cultures that are not my own for the sake of my art smacks of appropriation and the arrogant surface skimming of something I can’t truly understand. In a personal ritual setting experimentation with new practice is enriching, but for something like my video art I think it is gauche. The best way for me to work with non-western ritual language would be to collaborate with a practitioner who understands the deeper context and for me to take more of an ‘outsider’ position. This is something to consider for future works.

Ritual as a live performance piece is fraught with many of the same problems, especially the ‘cringe factor’ that comes with the cultural loading mentioned above. For both video and performance I’m inclined to remove most of the symbolic aspects that the audience is familiar with and, if I keep any (eg the kind of robed dress I’ve been using), angle it away from the ‘witchcraft and sorcery’ connotations. I’ve been leaning in the direction of historical art in gesture and form so that the work alludes to Renaissance or Baroque art which I hope lends it a different symbolic texture.

Looking again at Mikala Dwyer’s treatment of esoteric themes in her work I’ve been influenced by the way she has subverted and also utilised the loading of the forms she has used. Her robes and costumes for example still retain the connections to magical dress but they use fabrics and forms that have different connotations and so take the symbolism to a new place. Likewise her performance piece Goldene Ben’der (2013) which sees hooded participants robed in golden lamé attempt to defecate publicly into clear perspex seats which are later displayed. While this work may seemed to have a humorous aspect, it also captures both the seriousness and visual ridiculousness of ceremonial magick in one go. Very clever I think!

I spent some time pondering the kinds of rituals that are meant to be viewed as well as experienced and I came to the concept of the Mass. Aleister Crowley created a Gnostic Mass as a ceremonial ritual that I believe is the only example within his canon that is intended to be viewed by non-participants, although that’s an interesting point to play with as truly the congregation are also participants through the aspect of the Priest.
(Side note: he did also create his interpretation of the Rites of Eleusis, but to my mind they are theatre more than active ritual. Others might beg to differ.)

Crowley was hugely influenced by a Russian Orthodox Mass he witnessed, so while in St Petersburg I attempted to attend one to get a feel for what impressed him. I wasn’t able to attend a Mass, as I was not there on a Sunday, but I did attend a Russian Orthodox liturgy at Kazan Cathedral. Obviously I took no photos at the time of the service.

The cathedral has a central altar and 2 side altars, the Evening Liturgy was at one side and was cordoned off for worshippers. In order to be part of it I needed to wear a scarf over my head and I paid attention to everyone else to try and make sure I was doing the right thing. There is an awful lot of genuflecting, but apart from that it was actually quite relaxed with people coming and going.

Here are some interesting things that I noticed:

  • The altars are not visible to the congregation at all. There is a three part divider in front of each of the three altars called an iconostatis. Only the high clergy can go behind this to the altar and I believe it is only ever opened at Mass.
  • There are three clergy involved and they move around a lot; in and out of the 2 side doors in the iconostasis (but not the central door, they adored this but did not open it). There is a small altar within the congregation in front of the altar steps. This gives the chapel a three-point area of movement for the clergy: 1 behind the iconostatis (at the high altar), 2 in front of the iconostatis on the dais and 3 in the congregation on a lower level. One of the clergy takes incense around the whole perimeter of the chapel area and everyone turns towards him as he walks.
  • The congregation stand for the whole time. I had no idea how long the liturgies would go but I realised after an hour that they were actually looping round and it didn’t seem like they were going to stop any time soon. They genuflect a lot: head, base, right, left, touch the floor.
  • The loveliest part is the continual chanting and singing. The clergy chants the liturgies and an invisible choir up behind us sang in a call and response with the clergy. It’s worth having a listen to a Russian Orthodox service if you are interested because it truly is spine-tingling.

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Once again the viewer is still a part of the experience; you are THERE, you are not watching it play out on video. I find the placement of objects and people, plus the necessity to move through the area and be in certain places at certain times, to be a concept I could work with. I have created a diagram of the layout of a Russian Orthodox service versus Crowley’s Gnostic Mass. You can see the clear similarities between the too and the way movement through space would function in both rituals as the various clergy (or officers in the case of the Gnostic Mass) move around the chapel/temple. The 2 rituals above are very different but have strong similarities in movement, pacing and interactions. I feel that perhaps movement through space with gesture and interaction is intrinsic to a lot of ritual practice and could be included in my video while still allowing the work to remain free of the problems I outlined above. Something to think about further…

I find this whole quandary of portraying active ritual very interesting to think about. I find it very difficult but a great challenge. There are going to be some serious failures coming up, but a good ‘art fail’ is the best thing to point you in the right direction!

 

Noticing things: what artists do

“Recently a friend told me about a child she encountered in an education programme she was working on at Whitechapel Art Gallery. At the beginning of the project she asked the children, “What do you think a contemporary artist does?” And this particular child rather precociously put her hand up and said, “They sit around in Starbucks and eat organic salad.” And I imagine that is a pretty accurate assessment of many artists’ behaviour in the fashionable parts of the city. At the end of the course, after they had spent some time looking at what contemporary artists did, my friend asked them, “What do you now think a contemporary artist does?” And the same child said, “They notice things.” And I thought, wow, that’s a really short, succinct definition of what an artist does. My job is to notice things that other people don’t notice.”
Grayson Perry (2014) Playing to the Gallery. Penguin. p116

I’ve just finished reading “Playing to the Gallery” by Grayson Perry. It’s a lovely read and is absolutely perfect as a ‘plane book’: the kind of book that is interesting and entertaining enough to hold your attention during strong turbulence, but short enough that you can read it in a couple of hours and give it to a friend who also has a flight coming up. I love this sort of book because I find that so many books these days are just too long. At 135 pages this is the sort of book you can read once and then almost immediately read again to make sure you remember all the good bits for later when you want to tell someone about it.

There were lots of things in the book that made me think, made me laugh and made me nod in agreement. The section I’ve quoted above about what contemporary artists do was a bit I liked so much that I bookmarked it so I could come back and think about it some more. What struck me personally about the statement “They notice things” is that this is something people have said about me since I was a child.

My mum has said for as long as I can remember, “Oh, Mary notices all these things that I never even see.” This is particularly tied to my ability to find four leaf clovers everywhere as they seem to jump out at me as being the ‘wrong pattern’. (It freaks people out a bit to be honest).

My partner, Dan, thinks I’m hilarious because he imagines I just wander the streets pondering life and getting engrossed in noticing things while being oblivious to where I’m supposed to be going. He calls this ‘Puffining’ because he thinks I resemble a thoughtful puffin, especially when I wear my backpack on the bus; “What were you doing outside? Just puffining around I bet!”

I’ve discovered that even as a contractor I notice far more about the physical aspects of the office environment than the people who work there full time, so when I ask them questions about things I invariably get the answer, “Oh, I don’t know… I never noticed that.”

I always thought this was just a quirk of my personality, but now I’m coming to realise that this is what it is to be a contemporary artist. We all do this – wandering around noticing things and annoying other people. Grayson Perry has made me feel that my noticing ability is actually a boon to my art practice and not just something that my family thinks is amusing. As he said above: my job is to notice things that other people don’t notice!

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